'Cathedral of Middlesex' saved from ruin

English Heritage is stepping in to prevent the dereliction of the medieval Harmondsworth Great Barn lauded by Sir John Betjeman

The so-called "cathedral of Middlesex", a huge wooden barn that is one of Britain's most precious intact medieval buildings, is to be saved by English Heritage, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

In an extremely rare move, the heritage body has begun legal action that paves the way for the eventual compulsory purchase of the building, Harmondsworth Great Barn, on the fringe of Heathrow Airport.

If the purchase is approved by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Grade I-listed building will be brought into public ownership and saved from neglect at the hands of its owners, a Gibraltar-registered company.

Compulsory purchase would lay a ghost that has haunted English Heritage bosses for years. In 2006 the building's then owners went into receivership, and the quango was offered the building for £1.

It declined, and the Gibraltar company, hoping to cash in on the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport, snapped it up for the £1. Since then, says English Heritage, the owner has failed to respond to letters and emails sent by it concerning the condition of the barn.

One of Britain's unsung architectural treasures, Harmondsworth Great Barn dates back to the early decades of the 15th century, the era of the Battle of Agincourt. The barn is exceptional for its size and the quality of craftsmanship. It is 192ft long, with 12 huge oak bays, and was built at the height of the great wave of cathedral expansion, using similar techniques, and probably some of the same craftsmen.

Sir John Betjeman dubbed the barn "the cathedral of Middlesex". Virtually all the barn's wood, from giant oak supporting beams to its planked walls, are original, as is its stone and brick base. However, holes have recently appeared across the vast roof; parts of the interior are water soaked, and the brick and stonework is beginning to crumble. No fire warning or firefighting system is in place.

The plight of the barn was exposed this year by the campaign magazine Cornerstone, published by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which is highlighting the decay and vulnerability of much of Britain's historic rural architecture.

"Harmondsworth Barn is an astonishing survival," said Paddy Pugh, English Heritage director for the London region. "It is one of the largest and most intact ancient barns in the country."

In 2004, English Heritage was granted a compulsory purchase order to save Apethorpe Hall – an important, but rotting, 16th-century mansion in Northamptonshire.

As revealed by The IoS earlier his year, English Heritage has spent £7.5m on restoring the house but was seeking to sell it for about half its original £4.5m asking price.

English Heritage took the first step towards compulsory purchase of Harmondsworth Great Barn this month by issuing an urgent works notice on the owners. Emergency repairs are to start this week, under English Heritage's supervision, lawfully without the owner's consent.

Further non-compliance to repair orders will lead to compulsory purchase, stresses English Heritage. "We asked them [the owners] if they would just hand the barn over," says Paddy Pugh. "They paid £1 for it; we said we will pay £1."

There has been no response. "English Heritage will not stand by in this. When the present owners took on the building it was in reasonable condition. A repairs notice, which we will issue very soon, is the next step on the road to acquisition by English Heritage."

English Heritage estimates that full restoration of the barn would cost £400,000.

Ancient barns are particularly vulnerable to fire. In 2004 and 2005 a large portion of Grade I-listed Frindsbury Barn, at Rochester, Kent – built in 1403 – was destroyed in a series of unexplained fires.

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